The Conundrum of Identity and Letting Go: or Who Do I Think I’m Not

I’ve been sorting through myself recently. It’s a lot like going through an attic and finding a box you sort-of forgot about, but not really. Then the box is opened and the “oh, yeahs” start. I opened one of those a few days. It was marked “PhD.” For almost 20 years, my main career focus was to be an academic. Get a Ph.D., find a tenure track position at a college to write, teach, do research. Live out my life happily immersed in my intellect, because, quite frankly, it’s my favorite place to hang out. Conveniently, it’s also my favorite place to hide.

Well, after 15 graduate program applications over a few years and nothing but “thanks for applying, buts,” I realized that this dream wasn’t going to manifest. Time passed. People would ask me about my unfinished master’s and my thesis, or say, “aren’t you supposed to be in a Ph.D. program or something.” I’d mumble some answer, usually, “that’s not what I’m doing now,” and quickly change the subject. It hurts to talk about it, and it definitely registers as one of my life’s biggest failures. So, into the box it goes, all taped up and properly labeled, then shoved into the attic to live with the spiders and dust. However, it doesn’t go away.

I’ve held onto this identity, even after asking the question, “if not academia, then what?” and getting a definitive answer: writing. So, I spend time exploring this option. Writing here, writing there. Even, on occasion, calling myself a writer. But honestly, I don’t write. On a good day, I write morning pages. Most days aren’t so good. The intentions are there, but the will and passion seem to have been boxed up with the graduate school self. So, I reminisce about something that’s never happened and never will, and I avoid what’s in front of me. It’s a dysfunctional relationship with both identities. I can’t fully embrace one because I haven’t properly let go and mourned the other. Sounds like a romantic/intimate relationship, doesn’t it? That’s because it is, and perhaps even more so—it is, after all, a relationship with oneself.

The conundrum of all this is in the letting go. It’s not like breaking up with a significant other. In some regard, that’s easy: delete all emails, text messages, contact info. Return/toss out tokens of love, along with all the belongings left in your house. Cry to your friends, who remind you that you deserve better, and then feed you chocolate and pour you cocktails. “He/She is a horrible person for breaking your heart—let’s find you someone else.” But how do you break up with part of yourself? There’s no one to cry to and nothing to throw away. And, wow, it’s been a long relationship that had a place and a rightness… but it’s no longer the right one for me. I’m not sure I have the answer of how to do this, but I know that if I want to commit to Michelle the Writer, I have to let go of Michelle the Academic. And I suspect that the answer lies, ironically, in writing.

3 thoughts on “The Conundrum of Identity and Letting Go: or Who Do I Think I’m Not

  1. Lyn, I agree. I had already come to that conclusion myself. It was just a matter of grieving and moving on, which I hadn't quite done until yesterday. And oddly enough, today's post reflects what you said in your comment. 🙂


  2. Yesterday my husband read me a little from a book he was reading. It was about life purpose and how one man spent 30 years looking for his life purpose. He joined the army and found not much more than discipline, then he went to corporate America. Still unsettled by his lack of life purpose he went to NLP seminars to be told that, obviously, his life purpose was to become an NLP master. All the while he questioned and eventually he realised that his life purpose was whatever was moving him at the time. Perhaps it was NLP for a few years but then it's ok to be passionate about something else and your life purpose shifts.

    So the Phd version of you was totally valid, but you've changed and now the writer-you is emerging. There's nothing wrong with having different relationships with dreams/goals/ideas at different stages. You're just being honest and truthful to what passion stirs you now so don't be sad for the Phd that didn't work out, embrace the writer's heart that's calling to you now 🙂



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.